Marine Drive: Once upon a time this buzzing city centre was part of the backwaters
It is hard to imagine a time in Kochi before Marine Drive, without its shopping complexes and businesses, without its signature buzz and the sea of people which seems to flow around it. Local and outstation tourists take in the beauty of the backwaters while locals lounge around soaking its calm. There is a fantastical element to the Marine Drive story - it was created out of nothing or reclaimed from water.
Once upon a time this prime waterfront was all part of the backwaters. Then in the early 70s, close to 50 acres of land, acquired with the Cochin Port’s permission, was reclaimed to create Marine Drive on the initiative of the then Chairman of the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) S. Krishna Kumar.
The land that was reclaimed included Rajendra Maidan, which used to be a small ground, a portion of Subhash Bose Park and extended right up to the old Railway Station near the High Court.
N. Venugopal, Chairman, GCDA, says, “The reclamation was completed in 1974. One-third of the reclaimed space was to be dedicated to open spaces so we have Rajendra Maidan, Subhash Bose Park and the Helipad Ground. The rest was assigned for commercial and residential purposes. Helipad Ground, for instance, was a matter of convenience. When political leaders visited it was convenient to have the helicopter land here rather than being driven into the city from somewhere else. This way security issues were taken care of. The ground suited the needs of political meetings and cultural gatherings for which the city did not have a space.”
He disagrees that it was modelled on Mumbai’s famed Marine Drive with a road rather than a walkway. “In that case there would have been a road. The reclamation gave some more space to the space-starved city.” Space was even allocated for a cultural centre which, unfortunately, was not utilised.
Much of the reclamation was done by dredging, any other form of filling would have required humungous amount of resources, be it human or machinery, which veteran journalist K.M. Roy says would have been impossible to execute. The backwaters began from where the current median is on Shanmugham Road (on the Sridhar theatre side).
The two ‘high-rises’ on the reclaimed land were Kochi’s first ‘shopping mall’, Greater Cochin Development Authority’s shopping complex and what was supposed to be Kerala Tourism Development Corporation’s hotel project, which was later on taken over by the Taj Group and is today the Gateway Hotel.
Until the reclamation Kochi’s only high rise was Hotel Sealord on Shanmugham Road. The present Government Guest House, which used to be palace of the Cochin Royal Family, St. Teresa’s College and the boat jetty were the major structures on the south end of Shanmugham Road. “There was once a boat jetty behind the Guest House. One stepped out of the building and onto the jetty. The backwaters began there,” says Venugopal.
Next to Hotel Sealord were movie halls Sridhar and Menaka. Roy says Menaka was Ernakulam’s first movie theatre and “also probably the only one with ‘natural air-conditioning’. The windows and doors would be thrown open when the film began and fresh air would flow in.”
“Those days if one wanted to see film posters we had to come to these two theatres,” adds artist T. Kaladharan, “and there was a peanut vendor who used to sell excellent peanuts. We would watch the boats coming in with merchandise for the Ernakulam market.” Comfy parapets provided the perfect perch to munch on peanuts and take in the view of the backwaters. The parapet would be dotted with people in the evenings, Roy reminisces. Neighbouring Broadway, meanwhile, was the hub of economic activity. There were very few shops on Shanmugham Road.
“In the days before reclamation Broadway was busy. Besides my grandfather Artist Cherian’s ‘Royal Studio’, there was Seashells restaurant, a ‘Cine Photo Stores’ and ‘Radio Electronics’ (a radio repair shop),” says cameraman P.J. Cherian. ‘Royal Studio’ used to be where the current Attic restaurant is, next to Coffee Beanz. Artist Cherian, for the uninitiated, was a renowned name in Kochi. He was also court artist and photographer of the Cochin Royal Family. More importantly he produced the 1948 Malayalam film Nirmala .
Marine Drive is almost 40, Menaka theatre has become Penta Menaka complex, many new businesses have come up and very few of the pre-Marine Drive businesses survive. There is change written all over the place. And change, as a wise man once said, is the only constant.